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Curt Siodmak - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

July 2006

Curt Siodmak on (re)Search my Trash


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In the 1940's and 50's, there was probably no other man who influenced the (then relatively new) science fiction genre as much as Curt Siodmak, first and foremost as a writer and to a much lesser extent as a director. And while his works would never become as significant for movie history as the best films of his brother Robert Siodmak (e.g. The Spiral Staircase) and he certainly never was as good a director, science fiction (and horror) cinema would without a doubt be much poorer without his influence.


Born 1902 in Dresden, Germany, Curt Siodmak first studied physics, mathematics and engineering - something that would be felt throughout his writing career -, but it was as early as 1926 that his career took a decisive turn whenhis first science fiction short story, The Eggs of Lake Tanganyika, was published in the German magazine Die Woche - a story that eventually found its way into the then leading (and only) American sci-fi mag, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, as well.

The same year, Siodmak and his wife also found work on the groundbreaking science fiction morie Metropolis (1926, directed by Fritz Lang) as extras, but while this is a much-publicized fact, it probably had far less impact on Siodmak's writings than his studies ...


In the late 1920's, Curt Siodmak would start writing scripts for German silent cinema, for movies like Maskottchen/Mascots (1929, Felix Basch) and Flucht in die Fremdenlegion (1929, Louis Ralph), but it was a script based on one of Siodmak's newspaper articles (he also worked as a journalist during the 1920's) that would prove to be the turning point of his career: Menschen am Sonntag/People on Sunday (1929, script by Billy Wilder, directed by Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G.Ulmer).


People on Sunday was a film that was completely improvised by non-actors that portrayed themselves, young people on a very ordinary Sunday, doing whatever they did in their pastime, shot in (semi-)documentary style - today this concept might be considered an old hat, but back in 1929, it was simply groundbreaking. By the time the film was shot, neither Billy Wilder nor the Siodmak-brothers nor Zinneman and Ulmer had any real reputation inside the film industry, but eventually each of them would wind up to have a (more or less) successful Hollywood career ...


After the success of Menschen am Sonntag, Siodmak found himself hot property within the German film industry, writing screenplays for all sorts of movies including crime dramas like Der Schuss im Tonfilm-Atelier/The Shot in the Talker Studio (1930, directed by Alfred Zeisler) and two comedies directed by his brother Robert , Der Kampf mit dem Drachen and Der Mann der seinen Mörder sucht/Looking for his Murderer (both 1931).


However, it was a film from 1932, F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Karl Hartl), for which he co-wrote the screenplay based on one of his novels, that would become one of the cornerstones of his (early) career - and it would further his reputation as a science fiction author.

The movie itself was about the construction of a floating platform for airplanes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and about saboteurs threatening the project. It starred Hans Albers, then the superstar of German cinema, but eventually, an English language version (F.P.1 Doesn't Answer) and a French language version (F.P.1 ne répond plus) were made as well, starring Conrad Veidt and Charles Boyer, respectively.

In ordinary times, the (international) success should have opened all doors for Curt Siodmak in the German film indursty, but times were far from ordinary, since the Nazi gouvernment was in the process of getting an ever tighter grip of the country, including its movie industry, and since the Siodmak brothers were Jews, everything was turning against them. Heck, for F.P.1 antwortet nicht, Robert Siodmak was even turned down as a director to keep the quota of Jews in the production staff low. And that was just the beginning ...


In the year 1933, German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels made his infamous Speech on the Future of German Cinema - which opened the eyes of the (Jewish) Siodmak brothers and prompted them to leave the country. It d0dn't take long though before the brothers picked up in France where they left off in Germany, and Robert filmed an adaptation of one of Curt's novels, La Crise est Finie (1934). Robert would stay in France until 1939, but Curt, not versatile enough in the French language to do what he did best, to write, moved on to Great Britain, where he found a foothold in the local film industry soon enough.


The highlights of his British career were The Tunnel (1935, Maurice Elvey), a science fiction thriller about the building of a Transatlantic tunnel which he scripted based on a novel by Bernhard Kellermann, and the highly entertaining Non-Stop New York (1937, Robert Stevenson), a murder mystery set on a futuristic plane, which Siodmak co-scripted and which was based on a novel by Ken Atwill.

However, even more interesting than the films he did make during his British years are probably those which never were finished or never even got made, including the unfinished I Claudius, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Charles Laughton, The Deaf-Mute, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, based on the writings by Sir Walter Scott.


In 1938, Siodmak moves to the USA, where he, unlike other immigrants who had to start from zero, is welcomed with open arms - some of his stories and novels have been released in the US and his work on films like F.P.1 Doesn't Answer and The Tunnel has been acknowledged even in Hollywood. As a result, he soon found work co-scripting Her Jungle Love (1938, George Archainbaud), a jungle romance that was basically a showcase for lead Dorothy Lamour, and was one in a line of films starring Lamour as jungle girl in a sarong.


So ok, a jungle girl film starring Dorothy Lamour does hardly sound like the most exciting thing Hollywood has to offer, least of all for Curt Siodmak, whose talents clearly were with science fiction (and horror, as it would soon turn out), but one has to start from somewhere, and his next effort, the screen story and screenplay for Universal's The Invisible Man Returns (1939, Joe May), definitely was a step into the right direction. So pleased were Universal obviously with his script that they hired him for 2 more films of the Invisible Man-series, The Invisible Woman (1940, A.Edward Sutherland) and Invisible Agent (1942, Edward L.Marin), the last one being a propaganda effort only very loosely based on the H.G.Wells-novel.


From the Invisible Man-series, it was only a small step to Universal's classic horror-cycle, which had just been revived with Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V.Lee), and soon enough, Curt Siodmak would write maybe the classic of the second coming of the cycle (after it died down in the mid-1930's): The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner).

The film tells the story of a young man (Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here]) who, through no fault of his own, is turned into a werewolf, and is in the end killed by his own father (Claude Rains), who had previously done everything to save his life. Admittedly, The Wolf Man pales in comparison to the masterworks of the horror-cycle in the 1930's, most prominently of course Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale), and where those films were inventive, trailblazing even, The Wolf Man is only clichéd - but it is clichéd in a good way, and as an old-fashioned creeper, it works jsut fine.


With the success of The Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak's reputation as a horror scripter was cemented, and he would wind up becoming one of the most prolific writers of Universal's horror-cycle in the 1940's, writing the stories for Son of Dracula (1943, directed once again by his brother Robert Siodmak) and House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C.Kenton) as well as (co-)writing the screenplays for Black Friday (produced even before The Wolf Man, in 1940, directed by Arthur Lubin), Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1943, Roy William Neill), and the lesser known The Climax (1944, George Waggner), a disappointing technicolor shocker with striking similarities to the story of The Phantom of the Opera - and of course an attempt by Universal to cash in on their success of previous year's Phantom of the Opera (1943, Arthur Lubin).


Ultimately though, the Universal horrors would grow sillier with each film, and even if they are held in high esteem by some vintage film-fans nowadays, films like House of Frankenstein can easily be regarded as utter (if enjoyable) trash. The same can of course be said about many of the films that Siodmak scripted away from Universal during that time, like The Ape (1940, William Nigh), which Siodmak co-scripted for poverty row studio Monogram ... and I tend to often favour Monogram's B's over those from Universal, because Monogram at least lacked the budget of a big, overblown, and pretentious Universal-B-effort, meaning they couldn't afford any better while Universal sometimes just wouldn't. And if you can look behind the cheapishness of The Ape and its rather uninvolving direction and cheesiness, you actually find an interesting film about a mad scientist (Boris Karloff), who did all the evil he did only with the most benign intentions - which is rather unusual for a horror film.


Other films of the early to mid-1940's Siodmak had his hands in included Aloma of the South Seas (1941, Alfred Santrell), another Dorothy Lamour/jungle girl in a sarong movie - and this one also starred Jon Hall [Jon Hall bio - click here], and the then customary propaganda movies Pacific Blackout (1941, Ralph Murphy), London Blackout Murders and The Purple V, plus the crime thrillers Mantrap and False Faces (the last four films all date from 1943, directed by George Sherman and produced by Republic).


None of these films was particularly exciting or memorable, but it was during the early to mid-1940's that Siodmak also made two of his most enduring contributions to the horror and science fiction genre:

In 1942, he wrote the novel Donovan's Brain, the story of a scientist who keeps alive in his cellar the brain of a murdered and unscrupulous tycoon, which eventually takes over the mind of the scientist to investigate his own death ... and maybe more. Now I have to admit, from today's point of view, this might sound a bit pedestrian, but it was this novel (and the films based upon it) that heavily influenced (if not invented) the brainsploitation subgenre as such. Over the years, the novel was filmed (at least) three time for the big screen - as The Lady and the Monster (1944, George Sherman - again produced by Republic), starring Erich von Stroheim, as Donovan's Brain (1953, Felix E.Feist), and then there was this (quite good) German-English co-production that had so many different titles I don't know which are the most famous ones: The Brain/Ein Toter sucht seinen Mörder/Vengeance/Over My Dead Body (1962, Freddie Francis [Freddie Francis bio - click here]) - and one time for the small screen - in 1955 as part of the tv-series Studio One. (If one looks very closely though one might realize that Siodmak already anticipated parts of the novel in his script for the 1940-film Black Friday.)


Siodmak's other, maybe even greater genre contribution was the script to I Walked with a Zombie (1943, Jacques Tourneur), produced by Val Lewton for RKO, which would eventually wind up to become one of the few milestone horror films of the 1940's, and one that most critics can agree upon. The film is a spooky tale about voodoo and possession that comes to life especially thanks to its deliberately slow pace and creepy atmosphere. It might though be argued how much of the film's artistic virtuosity can be attributed to Siodmak - and Ardel Wray (his co-sripter) and Inez Wallace (who wrote the story) -, and how much has to be attributed to master director Jacques Tourneur and/or producer Val Lewton - who was always hell-bent on giving his shockers a house-style, different from the Universal-house-style -, and quite possibly, one might never find out who had how much influence on this masterpiece of a film, but at least Jacques Tourneur must have been pleased enough with Curt Siodmak's input, as in 1947 he made another film based on one of Siodmak's stories, the post-war thriller Berlin Express, filmed entirely in post-war Europe.


The second half of the 1940's did not hold too much promise for Curt Siodmak, assignments were rare and by and large not very interesting. His more interesting films from that period include a horror thriller Warner Brothers, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946, Robert Florey), a rather dull film that despite Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here] could not live up to the novel by W.Fryer Harvey it was based on, and Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem), the first film of the Tarzan-series starring Lex Barker [Lex Barker - click here], which revolves around a presumed lost aviatrix (Evelyn Ankers) and the fountain of youth.


However, if the second half of the 1940's was a disappointing era for Curt Siodmak, the 1950's would turn a new leaf in his career altogether, because in the 1950's, the science fiction genre finally evolved into a genre in its own right. True, there were science fiction films before, actually a great many of them, but before the 1950's science fiction was never seen as a genre of its own and there was never something even remotely resembling the science fiction boom of the 1950's. True, most sci-fi movies of that time were low budget films, and a great many of them were produced by small-time studios like AIP and Allied Artists and shown mainly in drive-ins around the country, but still these films needed writers, preferably oes with an overboarding and maybe a tad macabre fantasy and a background in science - and Curt Siodmak, having written quite a number of horror films in the 1940's as well as having studied physics, mathematics and engineering, fitted the bill nicely on both accounts.

But that wasn't all that was new in Curt Siodmak's career, in the 1950's, Siodmak also started directing on his own ...

The first film Curt Siodmak directed was Bride of the Gorilla, released in 1951 and produced by small-time studio Jack Broder Productions ... and to be quite honest, the film was anything but great: it's a retelling of Siodmak's own The Wolf Man, made on the cheap and substituting the wolf for a gorilla and Lon Chaney jr for Raymond Burr - even if Chaney jr shows up in the film anyhow, as the chief of police. Still, while Bride of the Gorilla is not the best written, produced or directed film there ever was, it's fun to watch anyhow (if for all the wrong reasons) ...


Siodmak's second film as a director, The Magnetic Monster from 1953, fared much better on a quality level. It's a film about a new element that eats energy and grows to double its size with every bite it gets, however, the bigger the element (or magnetic monster) gets, the more energy it needs ... and its not long before it threatens to suck the whole planet dry. Again, the film was made on the cheap, and its most impressive special effects, those of a giant dynamo, were actually snatched from a German film from 1934, Gold (Karl Hartl). Plus, most of the techno-babble in this film is simply ridiculous - at least from today's point of view. But despite all these shortcomings, the film works just fine, a well-paced (if at times incomprehensible and downright silly) sci-fi thriller if there ever was one ...


The next year, Siodmak wrote the script for Riders to the Stars (1954), which was directed by Richard Carlson, star of The Magnetic Monster and produced by A-Men Productions (a company that apparently produced only The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars). The film - about three astronauts going into space to capture a meteor and bring it back to earth - is far from being a classic but good sci-fi fun, and this time budgetary restraints are overcome by using stock footage from V2-rocket-testflights.


The next film Siodmak had his hands in, The Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, Edward L.Cahn) - produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia - is one of those films that might be called typical 1950's drive-in sci-fi-movies: The plot - a scientist uses atomic rays to turn people into zombies and later gangsters try to use the zombies for their own evil ends - is ridiculous, production values are low and the movie was sold mainly on its sensationalist poster ... and yet, films like this are hard to come by even nowadays by collectors of 1950's science fiction.


Later in 1955, Siodmak wrote the screen story for Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1955, Fred F.Sears) - aliens attack earth in (you guessed it) flying saucers - together with stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen, but reportedly, Siodmak was not too happy with the film, which was mainly a showcase for Ray Harryhausen's special effects while being very thin on original ideas and plot devices.


His next two films saw Curt Siodmak taking double duty as writer and director again: Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956) and Love Slaves of the Amazons (1957), both produced by Universal and both having pretty much self-explanatory titles. These were once more not great films, but for the modern drive-in afficionado once again, they are great pieces of nostalgia ...


1957 also saw the re-emergence of Gothic horror thanks to British production outfit Hammer and their classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957, Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here]), Dracula (1958, Terence Fisher) and the like. It wasn't long before the idea was born to duplicate the success that Hammer had on the big screen on TV as well, and thus the idea of a British-American series co-produced by Hammer and Columbia/Screen Gems was born, to be called Tales of Frankenstein.

Now in theory, this idea sounds great, but it seems as if Columbia was hell-bent on sabotaging the project right from the beginning. Instead of hiring at least some of the British talent that made the early and now classic Hammer-shockers work (with most of them being trained in TV-work anyways) an American crew was hired and virtually none of the actors that made the Hammer-shockers so great made their way onto telefision. And to top it off, Curt Siodmak was hired as the director of the pilot episode, titled The Face in the Tombstone Mirror. Now it wasn't that Siodmak did not have experience as a director - he was actually quite adequate - or experience in horror - far from it ... but his heyday in horror was with the latter half of the Universal's horror-cycle while he had no connection whatsoever to the then current Hammer-horrors - which is painfully obvious with the show which looks like a condensed version of a Universal-from about 15 years earlier (even down to the monster's make-up) with virtually no Hammer-influences whatsoever - which makes one wondered why Columbia even bothered to bring Hammer into the mix at all. Besides all that, the script - for once Siodmak did not have his hands in writing - was fairly silly. To noone's real surprise, the series was discontinued right after the pilot.


Siodmak's next assignment was another TV-series, 13 Demon Street (1959), a Swedish-American co-production of an anthology series of macabre science fiction and horror tales a little bit like the Twilight Zone, filmed in Sweden and hosted by Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here]. This time around, the whole series was filmed, but alas, it was never aired. Only 3 episodes of the series were cobbled together in 1961 and, framed by a story about a very alcoholic Lon Chaney jr playing the Devil (which had nochting to do with his role as host of the series), released in cinemas as The Devil's Messenger (Curt Siodmak, Herbert L.Strock). The resulting film is a so-so anthology flick that has its moments but also its fair share of let-downs. (Actually, only recently have several episodes of 13 Demon Street found their way onto various DVDs as special features.)


With the 1960's, Curt Siodmak returned to Germany but by and large retreated more and more from the movie world: he directed only one more feature and wrote the screenplays for another two.


In 1962, German (rip-off-)producer Artur Brauner of CCC-Filmkunst decided to have another go at the Krimi-genre that was then immensely popular with rival Rialto's Edgar Wallace-cycle, and he decided to start a Sherlock Holmes-series starring Christopher Lee, then a favourite with the crowds thanks to his many Hammer-horrors. For the first film of that (proposed) series, Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes/Sherlock Holmes and the Necklace of Death, he even hired Terence Fisher [Terence Fisher bio - click here] - who had in 1959 already directed another Sherlock Holmes-film, The Hound of the Baskervilles, incidently also with Christopher Lee but in a different role - as a director and Curt Siodmak as writer, which all sounds very promising ... 

... the result however is a disappointment, a sometimes charming disappointment but a disappointment still, a muddled murder mystery that tries to much but delivers too little, that despite the capable hands of director Terence Fisher lacks proper atmosphere and that, despite its international cast and crew, shows German stiffness where a certain light-footedness would have been mandatory. Having said that, the movie's not all bad, it's sometimes even charming - but most often charming for all the wrong reasons ...


With his script for Das Feuerschiff/The Lightship (1963, Ladislao Vajda), Siodmak for once turned away from genre cinema and to literary adaptations (even though he did adapt a few literary works for the screen before, these were invariably genre tales) - the film was based on a story by Siegfried Lenz -, and as a result he delivered one of his best screenplays and would eventually receive the Deutsche Bundesfilmpreis, a prestigious German award, for it.


1966, Curt Siodmak would direct his last film, a film for which he would definitely deserve no award: Liebesspiele im Schnee/Ski Fever, an Austrian/American/Czechoslovakian co-production filmed in Czechoslovakia. The film was a mindless and forgettable ski comedy starring Toni Sailer, a then immensely popular Austrian downhill-skier, but hardly an actor, and consequently the reulting film was hardly a good film.

And whatever you think about Curt Siodmak's previous films, and by God, they were not all great, Ski Fever was a sad farewell to the film world ...


But even though Curt Siodmak did turn his back on the film world, cinema did not forget him altogether: In 1970, one of his novels was filmed by Boris Sagal, Hauser's Memory, a film about a scientist who has injected his colleagues memory into his own brain in order to get access to some missile defense secrets - but he gets access to so much more, and not all of it pleasant ...


In 1979, James Bond-producer Albert Broccoli bought the rights to two of  Siodmak's novels, Skyport (1959) and City in the Sky (1974), to use elements from them in his latest James Bond-adventure Moonraker (1978, Lewis Gilbert). According to contract, Curt Siodmak was not given an on-screen credit for his input in the film, but quite a lump of money, and considering that Moonraker is one of the silliest (but unintentionally funniest) films of the series, it might be better that way anyhow ...

And even after his death, in 2001, Curt Siodmak received yet another screen credit: For the film Ritual/Tales from the Crypt Presents: Revelation (Avi Nesher), a remake of the classic I Walked with a Zombie he is credited as the author of the original. Needless to say, Ritual never lived up to I Walked with a Zombie and should best be forgotten right away ... but it demonstrates the effect Siodmak has on the genre even after his death.


Besides writing and/or directing films, Siodmak was a prolific writer of science fiction and horror novels and short stories, he was one of the fonuding members of the Screen Writers Guild of America in 1938, together with Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Julius Epstein, and he joined the Anti-Nazi League as early as 1939, when most of Hollywood (with a ew honourable exceptions) did not yet know how to deal with the Nazis. Later during the war he was active in writing subversive, anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets that were dropped over cities in wartime Germany.


In 2000, at the not exactly tender age of 98, Curt Siodmak died on his ranch in Three Rivers, California of natural causes. In his life, he might never have been the greatest of writers, and his works most certainly never deserved the Nobel Prize, some are even ridiculous from today's (jaded) poit of view, but that aside his influence on the science fiction (and to a lesser extent horror) genre simply cannot be exaggerated.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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In times of uncertainty of a possible zombie outbreak, a woman has to decide between two men - only one of them's one of the undead.


There's No Such Thing as Zombies
Luana Ribeira, Rudy Barrow and Rami Hilmi
special appearances by
Debra Lamb and Lynn Lowry


directed by
Eddie Bammeke

written by
Michael Haberfelner

produced by
Michael Haberfelner, Luana Ribeira and Eddie Bammeke


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Robots and rats,
demons and potholes,
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shopping mall Santas,
love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.


Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
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Tales to Chill
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